Afghanistan’s Electoral System: Political Participation or Democratic Revolution?

Posted on: 11-12-2017

By Mohammad Irfani

The article is a critical review of the book entitled “Criticism of Political Participation; Afghanistan’s Electoral System and its Laws” written by Mohammad Tawab Mannan. The book is divided into four chapters including: (1) literature review; (2) elections and legitimacy of political system; (3) electoral crimes and necessity of establishing legal institutions; and (4) supervising the elections. The author reviews the status of political participation under the Afghan political system to highlight various shortcomings of the political system and the current electoral system. In this article, l present a critical review of the first two chapters of the book in order to examine the accuracy of the basic principles which are being used to support the author’s arguments and his criticism of the political participation in Afghanistan.

The author raises the issues of “political participation” and “equal distribution of political power” based on democratic principles. He compares different electoral systems in order to introduce his proposal for reforming the political system. The statements below illustrate the author’s intellectual orientation:

1. Political participation:

  • In countries such as Afghanistan, (political) participation in itself is not a problem. (Page23)
  • Political participation in general terms is the realization of public will through political decision making processes for establishing a democratic government. (Page 26-27)
  • Political participation in specific terms is the realization of political rights for the formation of a legitimate government based on public will. (Page 27)
  • Political participation is the realization of public will through certain procedures which lead to the articulation of public contract (law) and the establishment of democracy. (Page 28)
  • In Afghanistan, the process of political participation and legitimization of the political power is being jeopardized by illegal institutions such as elections commission; therefore people’s rights and public will easily are being manipulated. (Page 28)

2. Equal distribution of political power

    • Political power belongs to the nation not to the individual. (Page 21)
    • Political power should be distributed among the citizens equally in order to prevent monopolization of power by one single person; because political power originates from public will and people’s participation. (Page 24)
    • Equal distribution of power through social justice, prevents unnecessary conflicts and chaotic competition. (Page 24)
    • Equality and distribution of power improve the function of political systems and increase political participation; it will consolidate social justice and democracy. (Page 22)
    • Democratic government is established through democratic voting as elections provide the opportunity for the people to endorse their political will. (Page 49)

In the third and fourth chapters of his book, the author analyzes some of the important problems of the Constitution (including the lack of checks and balance between different branches of the government), and those of electoral system (including the discriminatory allocation of seats for Kushi population, textual problems in the elections law and problems related to the elections commission). Nonetheless, the basic premises upon which he formulated his proposal for democratic reform are full of contradictions.

His advocacy for reforming the electoral system is based on two general arguments:

  1. People’s political participation in Afghanistan does not lead to the formation of democratic government, instead it leads to the domination of one single person over the public will; it contradicts the fact that political power belongs to the nation not to the individual.
  2. Afghanistan’s Constitution and its electoral system have provided the space for the formation of corrupt and useless institutions, which is the main cause of manipulation of public will.

The author emphasizes that Afghanistan’s Constitution and its electoral system must be amended in order to create powerful and committed institutions. According to him, in order to ensure that all citizens equally benefit from their political participation based on their political rights, any reforms must provide the basis for the establishment of a responsive government that guarantees proper separation of power. According to him, equal distribution of power is the only strategy to ensure citizen’s political rights.

Political participation and equal distribution of political power

The author emphasizes that in Afghanistan, political participation itself is not a problem. The problem is that people’s political participation does not lead to the preservation of their political rights as its being manipulated through the monopoly of power by one single person. When the political power is being manipulated through the monopoly of power by one single person, centralism and dictatorship are some of the expected consequences.

Of course, the monopoly of power by one single body could end up in dictatorship; but is it appropriate to disarm the individual in favor of the nation as the sole inheritor of political power? If we conclude that “political power belongs to the nation not to the individual”, the individual both as “the voter” and “the sovereign”, will be disarmed. In a democracy, the government is considered to be responsible before the nation for its actions towards the public interest.  But the question is where does the so-called “public interest” gain its legitimacy in the first place? Governments that are being established based on the electorates vote gain political legitimacy through the rule of law as they manage to create and maintain public capital; but to what extent one can equate the public capital with the public interest?

What is being categorized as public and private capital has no basis outside of public domain. In fact it is part of the public domain which is being created and institutionalized through the law making and law enforcement processes and the monopoly of use of force in the hands of government. Public interest plays a key role in shaping the political power, but is not the only source of public power within the public domain. Other sources such as social norms or cultural believes hold their own share of political power. The operation of a particular mode of public interest within a particular political system creates a specific framework of political power and prevents the establishment of other types of political power.

From this point of view, monarchy and democracy each has its own means for limiting the public will and curbing the individual’s discretion. Under monarchy, the king is considered to be the sole sovereign holding power, whereas in democracy the public will is being limited within the various political systems (such as Presidential, Parliamentary or Communism) undertaking its own monopoly of political power. So, political power cannot be attributed only to the individual or to the people. Both the individual and the nation hold some sort of political power as they take responsibility for their actions.

In Afghanistan, we have rulers such as Abdurahamn Khan who relied on military suppression and foreign support to establish his government. Later on, Amanullah Shah tried to form his government based on a Constitution. Then, Nadir Shah revised the previous ruling and for the first time authorized the establishment of a National Assembly in the Constitution. In the next stage, during Zahir Shah’s reign of power, the Constitution once again has been revised. The new Constitution limited the king’s discretion and the authorities of the royal family. In order to widen the scope of political participation, it also provided the space for the formation of political parties; a Prime Minister would lead the government and the National Assembly could supervise the government. As one can observe, the individual always had been able to hold political power (at least as a king or the ruler) and from time to time the people also asserted their political power in the forms of obeying the government, making alliances or challenging the authority of the ruler. Of course the government- if in place, holds its own authority over the public domain.

The issue is how to formulate the relationship between the individual’s political power, the people’s political power and the government’s political power.  What is the criteria for examining the responsibility of people before the political system? The political system itself could be considered as the benchmark for political action; but I would argue that this is only acceptable under a revolutionary political system.

Democratic political regime and the alternative electoral systems

Democracy is a revolutionary political system. In this era, the democratic revolution has been equalizing the political power according to its own criteria and values. The so called democracy - which literally means “the government of people”, is revolutionizing the whole society and replacing the society itself by creating public capital out of public interest. Promising the establishment of a political system based on elections and constant reforms, democracy overshadows the society to level down all differences among the people in favor of its own domination. The so-called democratic values fill the gap between the members of society, labeling the unequal status of people (which is a multidimensional reality) as “unfair inequality among the citizens”. Concepts such as “social justice”, “equal access to power” and “political participation of minorities” are being coined to support the democratic rule. The basic principles of this political system work through the balance of political power, ensuring a symbolic status of equality among the population. In fact elections are being held to examine such leveled and therefore distributed political power. This is where the political system itself could be considered as the benchmark of political action.

The author asserts that “Equal distribution of power through social justice, prevents unnecessary conflicts and chaotic competition.”[1] But this is only true if we believe in democracy and take it for granted. Only when the society is being replaced by the democracy, we can talk about the necessity of equal distribution of political power among the citizens. According to the egalitarian approach of democratic system, people submit to democracy through collective and individual voting. Through democratic values, the people are being ensured that not only they can vote, but they can also choose the electoral system. Although different electoral systems have different effects on the formation of government, a comparative study shows that the main difference between them is in the counting process and allocation of seats to the people’s representatives.[2] Democracy essentially is designed to equalize all governments and societies. Whether we are able to limit it within the boundaries of the government in order to provide better choices for governance or the democratic government will disarm people in favor of the people and replace the society itself. This is an important question, because in a democracy people got no real choices. They have no real power to choose between different things, but they are given symbolic rights to endorse the only option, which is democracy.

Criticism against democracy is not limited to the practice of democracy in Afghanistan. Therefore, critical arguments about the people’s political participation under such government must be supported by reliable values and proper reasoning. The author emphasizes that discriminatory allocation of seats for Kuchi population and the centralization of power in the executive hand are un-Islamic.[3] But such assertion won’t solve the problem. Article 3 of the Constitution asserts, “No law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan.” However, the so called “tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam” are as vague and baseless terms as “the tenets and provisions of democracy.”


Contrary to the author’s believes, in countries like Afghanistan, political participation itself is the problem. This problem cannot be solved only through reforming the electoral system or by amending the constitution in order to ensure proper separation of power. If the Constitutional amendment does not include the outlining values of political participation, it won’t improve the situation. If we look at the issue of centralization of power in the executive branch, we may find more problematic aspects in our constitution. For example according to the article 65 of the Constitution, only the president has the discretion of holding referendums in times of necessity.[4] In other countries people also have the discretion to hold referendums as a means of political participation. The current constitution must be reviewed closely in order to scrutinize its characteristics. The mechanism of constitutional amendment highlights the fact that political participation and political power are not bound to a particular form of political arrangement.

The author stresses that “Political participation is the realization of public will through certain procedures which lead to the articulation of public contract (law) and the establishment of democracy.” But we must not forget that the public will and the public contract could be bound to the will of two individuals based on terms of agreement in a mutual contract. The government of people then could be preserved through the mutual commitment to the terms of the agreed upon contract. Such a contract upon which the two sides are personally responsible towards each other is the only binding contract that holds legal credibility. Political participation only matters in such circumstances where we hold real power of choice; only then it can have an impact on decision making processes.

Mohammad Irfani is a Researcher at the Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies and the co-author of two studies on political participation in Afghanistan.

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The article does not reflect the official opinion of the AISS.


[1] Criticism of Political Participation; Afghanistan’s Electoral System and its laws, Mohammad Tawab Mannan, Aazem publication,2017

[2] In his comparison of different electoral systems, the author notes that “the absolute majority system is in fact an evolved form of simple (qualified) majority system as it addresses two important shortcomings of the latter; in one hand it ensures the democratic principle of majority rule and on the other hand, provides the elected person enough legitimacy and authority to govern. The alternative voting system is designed to address the shortcomings of the absolute majority system. Explaining the problems of qualified majority system the author says “ this system has its own shortcomings: for example if the winners of the elections are not being supported by the majority of voters- especially as the president, governor and MPs, they would lack the democratic legitimacy they need for serving as leader or representatives of the people. This will cause problems”. To explain the problems of the absolute majority system, he writes “the first problem of this electoral system is that it will cost us additional time and money to hold the second round of the election if necessary. The second problem is that in circumstances where the level of popularity between the rival candidates are somehow similar (for example consider five candidates each with about 20% of the votes) holding the second round of election between just two of the candidates (based on little difference in their level of popularity) is not appropriate. It may remove some of the candidates who could be considered as the second choice of the electorates. In the absolute majority system, the second choice is not applicable and also in such system so many votes could be wasted.” As one can observe, the main difference between the various electoral systems is the counting process to determine the winners and to allocate seats.

[3] Page 57-58

[4] Article 65 of the constitution asserts that “On important national, political, social as well as economic issues the President can call for a referendum of the people of Afghanistan. The referendum shall not be contrary to the provisions of this Constitution or require its amendment.”